Customers and Other Difficult People

This time I want to take a break from the usual technical “how-to” and talk a bit about another type of “how-to” — dealing with difficult people in a technical environment. Never fear, however, these points are very practical. So here we go:

Customers Lie

Ok, I can hear you already: “But, I have always heard that the customer is always right!” Well in some circumstances that maxim may be immediately applicable, but in the field in which we work it is almost always wrong, unless you substitute one little word. Let’s replace “always” with a more realistic “eventually”. So what do I mean by, “The customer is eventually right”? Let me explain:

When I was very new to this business, I got a phone call one afternoon from a friend who had arranged to so some work for someone, but was not going to have the time to fulfill the contract. He assured me that the job was very simple. All I had to do was go in, develop a simple data-logging program for the customer and leave.

The customer was a doctor doing research at Massachusetts General Hospital. She had gotten her hardware all set-up by the local NI sales representative but needed a simple program built to record the data she got. When I arrived for our appointment she was feeling very rushed and needed the software done very quickly. She said all she needed was for the software to read a new data point once a second and display it in a table on the front panel. This task that took 5 or 10 minutes.

When I showed her the result she was delighted. She affirmed that the program would significantly speed up their work because all her grad students have to do now was copy the numbers off the screen and plot them.

“Oh”, says I, “You need to plot the data?”

“Yes”, she replied, “but we don’t have the time…”

Asking for a moment more, I replaced the table with a graph and re-ran the program.

“My students are going to love you!”, she enthused, “With the graphing done, all they will need to do now is trace the image from the screen onto typing paper.”

“Wait a minute”, says I, “You need to print the graph?”

“Well, yes — but we don’t have the time…”

I think you can see where the conversation was going. In total, we did that dance for the better part of an hour and a half, and in the end, she had a program that did everything she needed. The problem was that her attempt to save time actually resulted in the program taking twice as long to develop because she never actually told me what she needed. The reason for this omission was simple: She had already decided that implementing all of what she needed would take too long and cost too much. Unfortunately that decision was made without information on me, LabVIEW or what can be done with LabVIEW in a short period of time (…even in Ver 1!). Consequently, she didn’t really tell me what she needed, rather she told me what she thought I could accomplish.

Over the years I have come to see that this is a common problem. You see, by the time you walk in the door, many customers are like this doctor. They have been through some sort of internal approval process — which always takes longer than expected — so they start off having less time than they thought they had. Moreover, now they have a dollar figure that they can’t go over.

To prevent this sort of situation, I now always begin all new customer contacts with what I call “The Talk”. During this conversation I point out politely, but firmly, that their job during the initial meetings is to tell me everything they need from the proposed application, both now and in the foreseeable future. The most important part of the process is that they are to hold nothing back. It is only after that information is on the table that we begin talking about schedules and budgets. When you know all the facts, the customer will get the best results and you can do your best work.

Never Ask Permission to do What is Needed

This section is actually something I have been wanting to write about for a while, but wasn’t sure about how to get into it. The problem, of course, is that when misunderstood or applied incorrectly, this point can become an open door for ego to come charging in and muddy things up. Like many things in life the answer lies not in maintaining some sort of “balance” but rather to learn to be comfortable with having two ideas running around in your head at the same time that on might seem contradictory:

  1. I have been doing this work a long time know what needs to be done.
  2. I might be wrong.

For a healthy career (and/or life) these ideas need to be in constant tension because clinging to either one will lead to problems: either arrogance on the one side or fear-induced immobility on the other. So how do you learn to be comfortable with this tension? Well, that is the Big Question that folks have been trying to figure out for millennia. If you have any thoughts on the topic I would be glad to hear them, but in the mean time, here are a couple things that work for me.

  1. Know your standards:
    There are things on which we feel free to compromise. There are also also things for which compromise is not possible for to compromise on those things would be to compromise on who we are. And then there is, of course, that vast gray area between the two extremes. I won’t try to tell you where the lines should be drawn — I’m just going to remind you that there are lines for you to draw.
  2. Always be learning:
    Learning is a great way of “keeping it real”. I read new things that come out, but I also reread things that I first read decades ago. An interest phenomenon that I have noticed is that each time I read certain papers I see things that I didn’t see before. It’s sort of like building: every time you learn something you are laying down a stone, and then standing on that stone you can see further than you did before.

Well, that’s all for now. Until next time…